The four composers and writers of SpitLip, Natasha Hodgson, Zoë Roberts, David Cumming and Felix Hagan chat to Katerina Partolina Schwartz about their musical Operation Mincemeat, their writing process and favourite moments in the show.
As soon as you hear the story, you’re like, “well obviously, it has to become a musical.”
How did you all start writing together?
David Cumming: So, Tash, Zoë and I all went to Warwick University and that’s where we all met there doing the extra-curricular theatre stuff that happens there. It has quite a lively theatre scene and you learn to produce, direct, fundraise, act and write. It’s where we met each other and learned that we have a similar worldview and comedy stylings. We created a company with two other guys called Kill the Beast, and from then we’ve been writing dark comedy horror shows for I think 8 years before SpitLip. And as part of that, we’d increasingly be adding more and more songs into our shows, and as the shows went on we needed more weighty music behind them and that’s when we pulled in Felix who was in a band with Natasha - that’s how they know each other - and he started working with Kill the Beast to help us make big 80s banger songs. From there we developed a realisation that maybe we just need to write a musical, and the other two guys weren’t really interested in that and obviously Felix was, so we went and started a new company. And that’s where it all began, really. It’s a melding of a band and a company to make SpitLip.
What made you decide to write a musical about Operation Mincemeat?
Natasha Hodgson: We knew we wanted it to be an adaptation or a true story, just because it’s really difficult to get other things off the ground when you’re unknown. We were searching for stuff and were talking about a few different ideas but none of them really stuck. And then I was on holiday with my family for my 30th birthday and I was complaining that we couldn’t find anything, and my brother just said that he was listening to a podcast that he thought would make a good musical. That’s such an annoying thing that people say, so I was like, “Shut up Joe”. And then I listened to it, and it was a Stuff You Should Know podcast about Operation Mincemeat, and I was like, “ugh, he’s absolutely right, this would make a perfect musical!” And I’ve never lived it down since. So, I sent the link to the podcast to these guys, and I was like, “I don’t want to write a musical about World War 2, but it feels like we’re going to have to write a musical about World War 2.”
Zoë Roberts: We couldn’t believe it.
DC: As soon as you hear the story, you’re like, “well obviously, it has to become a musical.”
All four of you are both writing and composing. How do you split the work?
DC: Terribly, very inefficiently.
ZR: We don’t have a method, do we? In many ways that would be good. We tend to sort of have just a bit of a grab bag, if a job needs doing somebody just sort of shot-gunning and going, “actually that’s the sort of thing that I want to do” or “I feel inspired, I’ve got an idea for that” rather than going, ‘‘we’ll just give it to a set person’’. Because we come from that comedy place of what’s the funniest situation of this scene or what would be good for this part of the story, we just kind of all brainstormed and found 'oh this bit of the story that would make a very good song' or 'I can see this comedy physical Marx brothers routine as this scene, I want to go away and work on that.’' Once it’s drafted - and you might draft a full song of lyrics or just have a hook, you might have a tune, you might have anything – once you throw it into the hive mind, it sort of doesn’t belong to you anymore. It just becomes the work of SpitLip, the communal swarm. Then we round-robin it or look at it collectively or pull it apart and re-work it. Sort of like a writers’ room happens internally, even before something gets up on its feet it will have gone through four or five edits which is what helps us. It means that we’re doing less of devising stuff and realising that it’s not what we want it to be. It’s a long-winded way of saying we don’t know how we work.
What is your favourite lyric from the show?
Felix Hagan: ‘Goose step to the left, Jump to the far right,’ that’s an absolute banger.
DC: The one that affects me the most is in Dear Bill where it’s like, ‘It’s just frustrating for you to be right when I have to do both the sides of this fight.’ And it just really gets me, and it just sums up so much of what is going on with that character at the moment. Just a lovely little couplet that boils down what is happening, it’s just a lovely, lovely bit of the show.
NH: I think for me it’s, ‘Fortune favours bravery and a fortune’s what I’ve got.’
ZR: It’s always the ones that you don’t say that you enjoy watching somebody else do. But I like the reply to ‘How does this get the Germans to Sardinia? Johnny, I know that the suspense is killing ya.” It feels like it’s a very good summary.
NH: What is the fact? No, no, no, no it doesn’t matter!
ZR: Well, it’s a fun rhyme!
What composer/ songwriter inspires you the most?
FH: In just general musical theatre terms, probably Lionel Bart and Cole Porter. Lionel Bart just for sheer exuberance of melody and wonderful patchiness and just total devotion to entertainment married with storytelling. It’s never allowed to be either telling the story or be a great song, it’s got to be both! And then Cole Porter’s amazing use of lyricism, there’s never a cheap rhyme, there’s never an easy rhyme. You get astonishing multi-syllabic rhyme schemes built into the lyricism. And these are all done in the early part of the 20th century; just the astonishing dexterity of the way that the lyrics hit the ear, it’s just so incredibly deft and it takes such enormous patience and skill to write that kind of thing. And the music of Anne Dudley, and her music for the TV show Jeeves and Wooster, that was always an excellent use of storytelling through harmony. I mean there’s so many.
NH: Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I remember seeing South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut for the first time and being like, “what the holy fuck is this?! How is this allowed? [singing] 'Blame Canada, blame Canada, it’s not really a real country anyway.'
DC: How are you allowed to be that dumb in a musical?
NH: That dumb but also really skilled, because they really worked on the melodies, and the combination of the stupidity and the cleverness was very inspiring to me as a kid.
DC: Just Chicago in general. The musical.
ZR: Can’t beat it.
NH: You can’t stop without referencing old Lin, old Lin-Manuel.
ZR: I think Hamilton was the first musical that I listened to and went, “oh it can be music that I like to listen to.”
What’s your favourite fact about the real Operation Mincemeat?
FH: I just love that the real Montagu brothers had formed their own society called Cheese Eaters League where they would try and get hold of some whale’s milk in order to eat the cheese of a real whale. That’s a fun fact.
ZR: I like that Hester did write the real letter. And the phrase, ‘why did we meet in the middle of a war, what a silly thing for anyone to do.’ That feels just so lovely.
FH: The fact that Willie Watkins exists.
DC: And that Jean went on to marry a soldier called Bill who stormed the beaches of Sicily and never once told him that she was responsible or likely responsible for helping save his life.
In the UK, World War 2 is still very much in the national consciousness and identify, as well as quite a heavy subject in itself. How did you keep the balance of being respectful of the history and the more comedic aspects of the show?
DC: The thing that interested us in this story is that it wasn’t the World War 2 that we’d been taught in school. We were taught very stiff upper lip, everything was grey, everything was rationed, everyone smelled like eggs, and this just blows that apart. It’s a revisionist retelling of World War 2 but actually it’s not really, it’s the truth of what they did, and we just don’t really learn about that so much. It’s the lens that we see it through, we’re questioning the role of women in society and we’re questioning the power that the people at the top hold and the fun that they seem to be having while they’re doing these things. But also, of course it’s a huge bit of the history of our nation and it holds a big place in the hearts of many for many reasons, and you can’t just flippantly just go, “yeah sure, hundreds of thousands and millions of people died,” you can’t be flippant about it. We had a rule that we didn’t really want to dwell on the horrors of the war, and instead - we called it lifting the curtain - we’d have a very fun show that would rollick along and then all of a sudden give you a background of all of this stuff is war. And it took us a while to find that balance between those two things. We’d always go for the jokes first and then we’ve learned to add the more poignant emotional bits later on as we’ve grown up.